How the Director of 'A Fantastic Woman' and 'Disobedience' Wants to Defy the Status Quo (Exclusive)
By John Boone
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"Regardless of its country of origin or of the dialect of its words," recited Rita Moreno from the Oscars stage before presenting the award for Best Foreign Language Film, "a great film conveys a story that speaks to the one condition we all share: the human condition."
The honor went to A Fantastic Woman, director Sebastián Lelio's film about a transgender woman (played by Daniela Vega) grappling with the aftermath of her partner's death. In this case, the country of origin was historic, the win marking the first time that a Chilean production has won the Academy Award. Vega herself made history that evening, as the Oscars' first trans presenter. "This is an amazing gift," Lelio grinned while accepting the award.
The very next month saw the release of Lelio's first English-language film, Disobedience, a drama centered on a woman (Rachel Weisz) who returns to her roots in the Orthodox Jewish community and a secret affair with a former lover (Rachel McAdams). Coinciding with the home video release of A Fantastic Woman, available now, Lelio Skyped ET from Chile, where he is busy working on post-production for the remake of his own 2013 film, Gloria, to reflect on the significance of his Oscar win, directing impactful sex scenes and collaborating with Vega once again. "Oh, we would love to! We are dying to," he perked up. "But we don't have anything yet. I'm secretly waiting for that idea to manifest."
ET: This was Chile's first-ever Foreign Language Film win. What was it like returning home with the Oscar?
Sebastián Lelio: It was great. It was really great! I mean, of course it was very beautiful and exciting to receive the Oscar, but then to come back here and to have the chance to see the impact that it had on people and how everyone saw it and it felt like a collective win, somehow. It was very, very moving. That's really what touched me the most. Then it reignited the political discussion about the gender identity bill in Chile, and right after the Oscars, the former president [Michelle Bachelet] gave the law extreme urgency status and now the new government will legislate. So, everything indicates that for the first time, the transgender community will be recognized and will have proper rights.
What is the next step for that bill?
I'm not absolutely clear, but I know that discussions are taking place in Congress, so I think it should be in the following couple of months. It's really beautiful.
You had another film submitted to the Oscars before. [Gloria was Chile's entry in 2013, but, in the end, was not shortlisted.] What does it mean to you to win for this movie?
Well, Gloria was Chile's entry, but didn't even make it to the nine. So, it was nice, the feeling of -- how do you say it? -- revenge. [Laughs] And then my friends and producers were nominated with the film No in , they were nominated and that was the first time a Chilean film was nominated, so it's the same group of people, so it was very, very moving to finally get it, you know?
Daniela made history as the Oscars' first openly trans presenter. What was it like for you to see her onstage in that moment?
It was incredible! Because, actually, we received the Oscar and then we got separated, and I went by myself to the press conference and the pictures and everything and I was like-- I don't know. I felt like I was on Jupiter. It was so surreal. And then I was sitting down with the Oscar in my hands and there was a little waiting for a photo session and there was a screen where they were transmitting the show, and I saw Daniela presenting the song of Call Me by Your Name. And that really hit me. Because it was like, I had the Oscar in my hands and I was watching Daniela presenting a song and making history. It felt just like one of those moments that you will never forget.
You said in your acceptance speech that Daniela was "the inspiration for this movie," that she was such an important collaborator throughout this process. Did you have a moment after the craziness of the ceremony died down to soak in the win together?
Oh, yeah. That was one of the most heartfelt hugs I've had in my life. It was so beautiful, because when we started, I remember when I met her, picking her up from the hair salon where she was working at the time. She was, of course, an artist and a force of nature and she had some experience in theater, she had some experience in film but very little, she was an opera singer, so she was an artist, but we never thought of ending up winning an Oscar. So, it was, like, boom! We hugged and it felt like-- [Laughs] Like, a very, very meaningful moment for both of us.
When you look back on shooting the movie and releasing the movie and on through awards season, do you have one moment that stands out as the defining moment of the A Fantastic Woman experience?
Yes. I think it has more to do with the creative process moment, because it was when I understood, or somehow I received or I channeled or whatever, the concept of making a trans-genre film about a transgender character. That really defined the identity of the film. That's why the film identity oscillates between different tonalities and genres. It is a romantic film that becomes a ghost story that becomes a character study, a musical, it has some elements of a thriller, it has fantasy, it has choreography, it has real moments. That expansion, that way for the film itself to ask, What can I be? What is my identity? really defined what the film was. Because knowing Daniela, getting to know her and become her friend, made me ask, What is a woman? And then as a filmmaker, the whole entire process of creating the script really made me pose the question, maybe in a stronger way than ever, What is a film? So, I think both things are intimately united in relation, you know? Marina's identity being in flux with Daniela's identity, I think her cinematic presence is always oscillating between the two of them. You see Daniela and you see Marina at the same time, and the film itself, wondering, What am I? What can I be? What are the limits of my identity? Until which point can I expand? And I think that was really, really important in the process, to find the real DNA of the movie.
Following Gloria and A Fantastic Woman, you recently released Disobedience. What draws you to tell these stories about the inner lives of these complicated women?
Or strong women. [Laughs] I don't know! It's first of all, intuition and fascination. I think I just feel on her side, somehow, but I like to see them falling down and then finding the tools to hopefully prevail. And I just feel really moved by the idea of trying to create this hopefully complex portrait, where you can see them from every possible angle and then these portraits that are somehow, at the same time, an exaltation and examination of these strong women, that somehow defies the status quo.
There has been a lot of talk around the central sex scene in Disobedience. [Between Weisz and McAdams' characters.] Were you expecting that?
I was not innocent about what we were doing, but what I like about it is the fact that everyone is talking about a sex scene in an era where we are overexposed to sex due to porn and where eroticism has been affected, if not damaged. And it is a scene where there is no nudity. That's what I like about it. It is a very specific scene, without nudity, that is hopefully very erotic and, as well, it is spiritual and it is very specific and daring in some ways. So, yeah, I'm proud of that, you know what I mean? Because it's not easy to generate some kind of impact when it comes to the representation of sex in 2018.
I am very curious about your next project, which is you're remaking your own movie, Gloria, but as an English-language film. What attracted you to retelling this story?
Well, Julianne Moore. [Laughs] First of all, and when we met, it was right before I was going to shoot A Fantastic Woman, so I said to Julianne, "Let me shoot A Fantastic Woman [and] Disobedience, because I need to make a first film in English that has nothing to do with Chile or that has nothing to do with anything I've done before. I need to kind of, like, prove myself, and then we can make this." She generously waited and I did these two films and when I was watching the first rough cut of Disobedience, I saw it. I saw that the film was there and I was very excited about it. And then Julianne called and said, "Hey, I have a window in November. Are we doing this?" And it felt right. I felt excited and I felt that the world had changed in the meantime, like, shifting towards the middle ages, not only in Europe, but especially in the United States. So, suddenly the story of a woman that wants to keep on living and loving and being seen and recognized and be alive became suddenly urgent and political again. So, it was exciting to try to find whatever is universal in that story and finding a new vehicle for that universality, through a great, great actress as Julianne.
How different is the film ending up from the original Gloria now that Julianne is in the title role?
Well, I guess that's for the audience to answer. [Laughs] But they are different. I mean, it's the same story, but the tone, the energy, is different. I guess having made two films in the meantime that are stepping further in stylization, that really affected this one. So, it has a different energy. It has the same story, but it's a different country, it's a different woman. Of course, they have things in common, but there are a few surprises.
Would you ever consider reimagining A Fantastic Woman as an English-language film?
Oh, not for now. I need a nap. I need a nap!
Is that something you would consider in the future, though? Or do you think your version of that film is fundamentally tied to Daniela?
Yes, I have that feeling now. I mean, if it was for me to direct it, I don't think I would. It's different. It's a different case. But maybe if someone else wants to remake it -- in the future, not now -- it's something that we could consider. There are great samples of remade films in film history and I wonder why only, you know, playwrights or musicians can revisit their own materials and we can't. I'm against that idea. I think films should be as free as any art form.
[The exclusive clip above, in which Lelio and Vega reveal how filming "A Fantastic Woman" was like "waging a war," comes from the film's bonus materials, now available on Blu-ray and DVD.]